Growing up I always felt different. I’m Aboriginal and I have white skin, which makes things a whole lot harder. I always hear the saying “you are Aboriginal no matter your skin colour; coffee is coffee no matter how much milk you add to it” and I would repeat that to myself a lot. I remember when I told teachers, friends, or classmates that I was Aboriginal I would get the look, the look of disbelief, and I knew what came after that:
“You don’t look Aboriginal”
“What percent are you?”
“Must have been from one of your ancestors, you don’t even look like one”
Photo by Tara Moore on Getty Images. https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/282249101634933932/.
I moved to a new school and became good friends with another girl. We would hang out on our breaks. I moved away and we lost contact, but we still had each other on social media. One night I posted something about being Aboriginal. She commented on it and started blasting me—calling me a racist, saying that Aboriginals are only black and that white people need to stop claiming that they are Aboriginal, because they aren’t. I explained to her that I was Aboriginal—it was ignorant of her to claim I wasn’t because of my skin tone, and it was racist of her to even say that, as she wasn’t Aboriginal herself. I explained that one of the reasons Aboriginals are so many different skin tones is because of the genocide, and whitewashing, because of the stolen generation where Aboriginal children where taken from their homes and put into camps or to government-sponsored institution, as well as the eugenics to ‘breed out’ Aboriginals.
She called me a racist and said that didn’t happen and denied this history. She said she was going to find where I lived and jump me with a group of girls. At the time I had already moved states so I knew I was safe, but this interaction caused me to see everything differently.
Still from Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-30/last-sister-from-rabbit-proof-fence-dies-in-jigalong/9815386.
Was I being racist by telling people I was Aboriginal? Was that how other people saw me when I said I was Aboriginal? I felt horrified by myself, thinking that I had been causing other Aboriginal people’s pain and making things worse for them.
Slowly, I began to not tell anyone, to hide it. Like being Aboriginal was a secret, something that I was supposed to hide because no one would believe me anyway. I didn’t want anyone to lash out at me again, to do the same thing that my old friend did.
I began to resent how I looked. Most of my siblings are tan and my father is very tan, so they looked “how Aboriginals are supposed to look”. I started to self-tan—nothing drastic, but just to make me look like I had a natural tan, like how I was supposed to look. I wanted so desperately to be accepted by people who weren’t even Aboriginal, who weren’t my people.
I hated myself and I hated self-tanning—it smelled awful and I would have to keep up with it every few weeks. I hated being sticky and I hated looking in the mirror and not recognising the person who was staring back at me.
This went on for months. I would look in the mirror, not recognise myself but continue to apply fake tan, continue to wish I was different. Wish my nose was wider, wish my lips were thicker. I envied so many women, I was so jealous.
One day I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an ad for Clothing the Gaps, an Aboriginal clothing company. In one of the ads was a girl who looked like me…well, me without the fake tan. I was shocked. At that moment my world imploded. There was someone out there who was Aboriginal, who looked like me. It made me second guess everything. If she could be recognised and accepted, why couldn’t I do the same for myself? That night I scrubbed away the self-tan, and for the first time in what felt like months I was comfortable in my own skin, in my very patchy self-tan stained skin, but my skin nonetheless.
Clothing The Gaps co-founders: Gunditjmara woman Laura Thompson and Sarah Sheridan. Photo by Bri Hammond. https://thedesignfiles.net/2021/03/clothing-the-gaps/
After that night I started to accept myself. I started to proudly call myself Aboriginal again, and I didn’t care what anyone thought anymore. I didn’t care if I got the look, because percentages, blood quantum and all those stupid things that people would ask me didn’t worry me because I knew deep down that it came from a place of misunderstanding and a place of ignorance, if not a place of racism.
I know now that my old friend was ignorant. She didn’t know anything about Aboriginals or their struggles. She was probably dealing with her own issues and just took them out on me.
Since then, I have done a lot regarding my self-confidence and my struggles around my identity. I am proud of the way I look; I am proud to be Aboriginal and I always remember that no matter how much milk you add to coffee, it’s still coffee.
Susannah Mannie is a writer, poet, and a proud lutruwita/Tasmanian Aboriginal woman.
She is an avid reader and is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English at the University of Tasmania. Susannah is a co-host with a group of individuals for a radio show based in nipaluna/Hobart called This Way // That Way on Edge Radio that focuses on youth-led conversations about sexual and reproductive health, relationships, and culture. Susannah is passionate about spreading awareness for Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that she was diagnosed with in 2020 after multiple misdiagnoses.